University of Massachusetts Lowell Prohibits “Offensive” Online Speech

According to a report by Ben Squires at Reclaim the Net, the University of  Massachusetts Lowell has an Acceptable Use Policy that prohibits students “from using university Wi-Fi to intentionally share, send, or view ‘offensive’ content.”

This is clearly an infringement of the First Amendment, which the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a pro-free speech group, has sounded off against.

According to a report by The Boston Herald, FIRE is calling on UMass Lowell to change its Internet policies. FIRE is now giving UMass Lowell a “red light” rating for its restriction on free speech. 

On a monthly basis, FIRE criticizes a university policy for its “Speech Code of the Month.” For the month of August, UMass Lowell has received the dubious distinction for its Acceptable Use Policy that prohibits students from intentionally sharing, communicating or accessing “offensive” material.

“Since much of what you see online could be called offensive by someone, the policy bans protected speech,” declared Laura Beltz, FIRE’s director of policy reform.

“The Supreme Court has held, time and time again, that the government can’t restrict speech just because someone finds it offensive,” she added.

Universities’ Acceptable Use Policies regulate the way computers and networks are used at these institutions. 

 FIRE singled out the “prohibitive actions” section of UMass Lowell’s Acceptable Use Policy, specifically a rule that said the following: “Use information technology resources or services for intentionally transmitting, communicating or accessing pornographic or sexually explicit material, images, text or other offensive material except when clearly required to do so in the course of their work.”

FIRE cited the Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson, where the Court ruled that burning the American flag fell under the category of protected speech

“The government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable,” the Supreme Court ruled.

“So whether you’re burning an American flag at a protest or just advocating for or against flag burning on Twitter, expression can’t be limited just because someone was offended by it,” Beltz remarked.

FIRE called attention to how colleges and universities frequently ban “offensive” speech by using campus speech codes. On the tech front, they curtail free speech through their information technology policies. 

“UMass Lowell couldn’t possibly take action every time someone views or retweets something subjectively offensive over university Wi-Fi — every single student, and probably every professor, would be on trial,” FIRE proclaimed. “But a policy like this makes it all too easy for the university to crack down on select, disfavored speech.”

“FIRE stands ready to assist UMass Lowell — as well as any other colleges and universities with restrictive speech codes — in revising its policies,” the pro-free speech organization continued.

The Boston Herald noted that by receiving FIRE’s “red light” rating, “UMass Lowell is now in the bottom 18.5 percent of schools rated in FIRE’s Spotlight database.” 

Universities have become no-go zones for free speech. That is undeniable. Organizations such as FIRE are some of the last bulwarks against anti-free speech policies. Their work is commendable.

However, it’s not enough to have watchdog organizations holding universities accountable. There needs to be an America First takeover of Congress so that universities can be punished through the seizure of their endowments and stripping of federal funds when they infringe on the rights of right-wing students.

Bad political behavior must always be punished. 


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